Please keep the people of Nebraska in your prayers.
The flooding there is as bad as it looks on television; clean up and restoration will
take a lot more days and dollars than the attention the news cycle will provide.
You can help directly, without marketing and administrative expenses, by joining me in
giving to our ELCA’s Nebraska Synod Disaster Fund.
I got to see some of the lingering floodwaters firsthand from the air and from the car as I
traveled to Broken Bow, Nebraska last weekend.
I was invited there to work with parish ministry associates – certified lay preachers – on
crafting sermons, since God’s church maintains its official belief in the miracle
that people listen to them.
I told them that they are called to be stewards of God’s story, and that is important
because who is telling a story and how makes a world of difference.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all craft different versions of the story we just heard from John.
The woman’s identity, the location, and the timing in Jesus’ ministry vary from one gospel to the next, and the Holy Spirit generously lets us have them all.
Even within the story, there is wide variation on who will tell it and how.
Judas tells a story of waste: lost money, lost opportunity, sin against the poor.
Others on the scene would likely whisper a story of a woman behaving badly: making an
undignified public display of affection with loosened hair, ridiculous extravagance, jarring intimacy, and the task of the lowest slave.
How would Mary tell this story, if given the chance?
How would someone who is poor tell it?
How would other voices will we never hear describe what happened?
Saint John doesn’t care.
John is focused on how Jesus tells the story.
Jesus is the one who tells God the story of human worth, and he’s the one who tells us the
story of divine love, so it is his shepherding voice that John tunes our ears to hear.
When Judas pipes up, Jesus steps in and takes control of the story.
Leave her alone.
She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.
“The act you criticize is deeply divine.
It is a beautiful display of discipleship, rich with meaning and holiness.
Lazarus’ life means my death, and my death means your life, and Mary has just
anointed God’s anointed one for his grave.”
Her act is so sacred, in fact, that within a week, Jesus doubles down on his approval by
kneeling down himself and washing his disciples’ feet despite Peter’s protests.
Mary is a model and mentor and prophet and theologian and saint, which is a very
different story than foolish, wasteful floozy.
How does Jesus tell the story of who we are?
How do our lives and words tell the story of who he is?
And how do we, who are entrusted with his Spirit in baptism, tell the story of who our
neighbor is and what she does?
Martin Luther counseled in the Small Catechism, We are to fear and love God, so that we
do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their
Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they
do in the best possible light.
Now sometimes down south they call this “putting lipstick on a pig.”
But the gospel does something different.
The gospel puts perfume on a corpse.
It is not simply covering over and masking the ugly.
It is transforming it into beauty.
The gospel turns shame into glory and cross into victory and death into life.
And you can’t do that by glossing over; you do it by diving in.
One of the truths about flooding that no one realizes from afar is that it stinks—not just
metaphorically, but literally.
Flood waters smell.
They are full of dead things and living things and garbage and wet wood and manure and rotting food and no-one-wants-to-know what else.
Rescue and clean up and restoration are nasty, dirty, hard, slow work the nose warns you
not to do.
So when Jesus arrived at Lazarus’ tomb and ordered the stone removed, Martha
discouraged him, in that terrific King James translation, “Lord, he stinketh.”
Death smells terrible—and resurrection plugs its nose and moves closer.
They remove the stone, Lazarus comes out, and what we so quickly forget is that
Martha was right.
Jesus says, “Unbind him and let him go.”
Walk up to the rancid, smelly corpse and unwrap him.
Step into the flooded barn and basement and get to work.
Plug your nose and get your hands dirty, because that is how life wins.
Theologians call this incarnation: God plugs God’s nose and dives into history.
God is born among animals and smells like fish and washes his disciples’ nasty
feet and sweats and bleeds and dies on a cross.
The stench of it is unbearable, but Mary smells the truth.
She fills the house with the fragrance of life.
Her perfume sings the story of Jesus, who transforms he stinketh into salvation.
Her extravagance showcases the gospel that Jesus the good shepherd came that
we smelly sheep might have life and have it abundantly.
The flood waters of spring are no match for the dirty, healing waters of baptism.
The overwhelming stench of death is no match for the tenacity and beauty of life.
Our charred southern California hills are now lush carpets of grass and wildflowers.
The hideous cross is now a shimmering symbol of triumph.
Grace dives in, rolls its sleeves up, lets it hair down, and gets to work transforming feet
into fragrance and horror into hope.
Many people do not understand.
Many critics cry waste and inefficiency and foolishness.
So we must keep telling the story.
Tell the story of the shameful, servant God on his knees and on the cross.
Be the story of Mary’s extravagant gratitude and generosity and trust in Jesus.
Crack it open and pour it out.
Drench this world with priceless hope.
Overpower its sad, cold calculus of scarcity and self-concern by telling and living the wild story of the foolishly extravagant love and generosity of the God of rainbow and resurrection.
In the words of Saint Paul, that old fool for Christ, thanks be to God, who in Christ
always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place
the fragrance that comes from knowing him.
For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among
those who are perishing...
The gospel we hear and speak and live is the sweet, lavish, powerful scent of hope.
This world stinketh, so pour it on.